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Foes of growth in Canada's oil sands have found a new target: a plan by Enbridge Inc. to expand the reach of Alberta crude into the eastern stretches of the country.

Earlier this month, Enbridge filed for approval to partially reverse the flow of Line 9, a pipe that currently carries African and Middle Eastern crude from Montreal through southwestern Ontario to refineries around Sarnia, Ont. The $16.9-million proposal, which could be built by next fall, would instead see western oil, which crosses the continent on other Enbridge pipes, reverse the flow on a roughly 200-kilometre section of pipe from Sarnia to Westover, an oil hub northwest of Hamilton.

From that hub, the crude could feed a United Refining Co. operation in Pennsylvania and the Imperial Oil Ltd. refinery at Nanticoke, Ont. Imperial has said in public filings it supports the project.

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But environmental groups are demanding further scrutiny amid concerns that this proposal is only the first step in an attempt to open a much larger market to the oil sands. That makes Line 9 the latest oil sands-related project to draw the attention of critics who have opposed industry expansion at every turn, seeking to block the TransCanada Corp. Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude to the southern United States, and the Enbridge Inc. Northern Gateway line that would transport it to the Pacific for export to Asia.

"Enbridge has opened a new front in the pipeline battles," said Matt Price, campaigns director for Environmental Defence, which plans to file its objections to the Enbridge plan with the National Energy Board on Friday.

Five environmental groups – including two from the United States – have signed on to the filing, which seeks more intensive examination of the Line 9 plan, and suggests that allowing more Alberta crude into Ontario could cause that province to run afoul of emissions reduction targets and see increased pollution.

Enbridge said the reversed Sarnia-to-Westover pipe would initially take light crude that is not from the oil sands, although the company says that could change in the future. The reversal request, the company has said in public filings, comes in response to "customers' request[s]for greater capacity and access to the Ontario market." Building it would require installing some new equipment but not building any new pipe and causing almost no disturbance to land or water.

Still, critics are worried the Westover plan – which Enbridge calls "Phase I" – is only an initial foray, a notion supported by industry sources who on Thursday confirmed that discussions are underway toward expanding the Enbridge proposal to potentially carry Alberta oil to Atlantic tidewater. That idea, which was contemplated in 2008 but shelved during the economic downturn, could substantially extend the breadth of North American refineries – both on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico – accessible to Western crude producers.

Doing so would also require flipping the direction of another pipe, the Portland Montreal Pipe Line, which currently transports crude from Maine to Quebec. Officials with Portland Montreal say they are in talks to do just that.

"We're still very much interested in reversing the flow of one of our two pipelines to move Western Canadian crude to the eastern seaboard," said company treasurer Dave Cyr. "We're having discussions with Enbridge on their Line 9 and what it means to us."

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In a statement, Enbridge spokeswoman Gina Jordan said "it is possible that a second project phase to reverse the Westover-to-Montreal section of Line 9 may be developed and proposed by Enbridge, but this is entirely dependent on market conditions."

That expanded reversal has the support of large parts of industry. By bringing more western crude to Ontario and, potentially Quebec, companies see an opportunity to reduce their dependence on foreign crude imports. An East Coast option is also a useful alternative in case some of those other proposed pipelines – such as Keystone XL and Gateway, meant to carry crude to the West Coast – are delayed or blocked.

"There's no doubt about it – we're very supportive," said Dany Laferriere, a spokesman for Suncor Energy Inc., which runs a refinery in Montreal and has contemplated renovation plans that would allow it to process heavier oil.

"Anything that can give us more choice in terms of the crude we bring in ... to the Montreal refinery is a good thing."

Mr. Price, however, argues that reversing Line 9 could hurt energy security. Such a move could, in future, serve to "cut off most of Ontario from any sources of oil other than tar sands over time, and we're saying what does that mean for energy security?" he said. "It does feel to me like you're putting all your eggs in one basket."

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